Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Light Geese

I wrote a three-part series for Backyard Poultry magazine on Geese, organized according to the American Poultry Association's categories: Heavy Medium and Light Geese. This is the Light Geese part.

In addition to two domestic breeds, the Light Goose class includes the wild Canada Goose and the Egyptian Goose, which is not a true goose at all.

Goose continues to struggle to win the hearts and wallets of American consumers. The USDA’s most recent figures compare sales in 2002 and 2007, which showed a decline. I’m optimistic that more recent figures would show an increase.

Chinese and Roman Geese

The Chinese and the Tufted Roman are domestic geese, long favored on farms. They are light compared to their heavy and medium cousins, weighing 10 to 12 pounds and standing about three feet tall. They are usually kept for ornamental purposes and make good companions. As Samuel Cushman says in the article included in the 1912 edition of Harrison Weir’s The Poultry Book’s chapter on The Domestic Goose, the Chinese are “more on the bantam order.”

Chinese geese are the best egg producers of all goose breeds. Occasional reports claim more than 80 eggs a year, but 30-40 is more realistic. Geese remain seasonal layers, a legacy of their wild past.

Chinese Geese are good foragers, making them welcome as weeders. Schlitz Goose Farm of South Dakota, which now produces two-thirds of the commercial geese sold in grocery stores, got its start from hatching goose eggs for other farmers, who wanted the geese as weeders for their crops. “In the late 1940's, the geese went to the cotton fields of Texas and California, the strawberry beds of Michigan and the asparagus and mint fields of Washington.  These farmers found geese to be economical and effective labor to weed the fields, as the geese literally worked for food,” according to the farms’ corporate history. Schlitz, which began with heavy Toulouse geese, now raises its own variety of geese, bred for meat production.

Like their larger African cousins weighing 18 to 22 pounds, they are knobbed geese. The knob between their eyes develops to its full size over several years. Although generally males are larger and have larger knobs than females, this is not a reliable way to sex African or China Geese. Both sexes vary too much in size. The Brown have black knobs and the Whites have orange knobs. White Chinese are more popular than the original Brown color variety. Their relation to the wild Swan Goose is apparent in their graceful necks. The Brown variety shows a dark brown stripe down the back.  

Both were separately recognized in the first Standard of Excellence in 1874, but with different weights, separated by only four pounds between African and Chinese geese, according to Willis Grant Johnson’s 1912 edition of The Poultry Book, p. 1103, which gives weights of 20 pounds (now 22) for the African gander and 18 (now the same) for the goose, 16 for a Chinese gander (now 12), 14 (now 10) for a goose.

“Many people prefer a small table goose,” said James Konecny, president of the International Waterfowl Breeders Association. “They want a goose that’s about the size of a big duck.”
Cold weather doesn’t bother them. Their close feathers protect them and may make them appear smaller than their muscular bodies are. Their knobs are subject to frostbite, showing up as orange patches on black knobs, which fade back to black over time.

The hens develop a lobe during laying season, but otherwise they have a slim, graceful silhouette. They have a short body and carry the head upright on a long, arched neck. In 1902, Harrison Weir in Our Poultry and All About Them, considered Swan Goose an alternate name for Chinese Geese, which he said were also known as Spanish, Guinea, Cape and African. “In carriage or deportment it differs widely from the goose tribe in general, being upright and stately, sometimes exceedingly so, with its long crane-like neck erected to the uttermost,” he wrote.

Tufted Roman Geese are named for the round tuft of feathers on their heads. These are photographed by Metzer Farms in California. They have a long European history, going back to Juno’s temple in Ancient Rome, where they were sacred. They originated in the Danube area and are related to Sebastopol Geese. Despite that long history, they were not added to the Standard until 1977.

They have a compact body without keel, lobe or dewlap and make a good roasting bird, despite their relatively small size. The tuft is present from hatching. They are now raised in several colors, although White is the only recognized color. Their eyes are blue and bill and legs and feet may be pinkish or reddish orange.

Only the white variety is recognized, but breeders can’t resist breeding other colors into these popular and hardy geese. Gray tufted geese have been developed but the buff is the most popular.

Unrecognized Breeds

Buff Tufted Roman geese were developed by Ruth Book of Book Farms in Granby, Missouri. She crossed the Buff Goose with the Tufted Roman Goose and selectively bred them to get a buff bird as large as the American Buff goose with the Tufted Roman conformation. Metzer Farms in Gonzalez, California purchased her entire breeding stock and is continuing her work.

“We hope to introduce them throughout the United States,” said John Metzer, owner of Metzer Farms. “Our ultimate goal is to have them recognized as a distinct breed by the American Poultry Association.”

Andrea Heesters of The Netherlands bought some from Metzer Farms and continues to breed them. She finds them affectionate and loyal. “They are curious and talkative and can be very opinionated, although in a nice way,” she says “They are vigilant when they see strangers and make quite a lot of noise at that moment but, in general, they are quiet geese and certainly not noisy.” Their curiosity can lead them into adventures. Mrs. Heesters reports that “One of our ganders, Jules, found it extremely interesting to see how we opened the gate and stood there a few times watching us intensely. A few days later, Jules opened the gate himself!”

Ideally, they should have the same type as the white variety: the same size, with a medium-length neck, a fat head and a short, stout beak. The bill and feet should be pinkish red.

“It should be small, stocky, rounded plump little goose,” said Konecny.

Other unrecognized light geese include Cotton Patch Geese and other traditional American farm geese, such as Choctaw geese. They are local variations that developed from the West of England or Old English geese which probably came to America with early English settlers. These are Tom T. Walker's Cotton Patch geese in Texas.

Shetland geese are the smallest of the autosexing geese, which have different plumage on males and females, making it easy to select birds for the breeding pen. Females are saddlebacked or gray and white. Males are white with blue eyes. So few of these birds are in American breeding pens that the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy recommends that additional birds be imported to increase the genetic pool.

The Classic Roman goose has no tuft. The absence of the tuft disqualifies a Tufted Roman goose in the show ring, but smooth-headed Roman geese are the norm in Europe. Smooth-headed Roman geese are a separate breed. Metzer Farms is developing a flock that will be available in the future.

Dave Holderread has developed the Oregon Mini Goose at his Holderread Waterfowl & Preservation Center in Corvallis, Oregon. They are small geese, bred to weigh four to ten pounds, in white, splashed, belted, saddleback and solid varieties. They mature early and are attracting an enthusiastic following.

Ornamental Geese

Canada Geese and Egyptian Geese are technically not domesticated. They are tamed but still considered wild.
Canada Geese, like all geese, tame relatively easily (as compared to say, a chukar or a peacock). These are from Metzer Farms. Wild flocks may become resident on golf courses and playing fields, where they become a nuisance. They adapt to confinement and breed well. They are about the same size as Chinese and Roman Geese, at 12 pounds for a gander and 10 pounds for a goose. The Eastern or Common subspecies is the one recognized for exhibition, but many color variations exist.

The Egyptian is not a true goose, but a bird between a dabbling duck and a goose. It’s biologically classified as a Shelduck, a subfamily in the duck, goose and swan family. They are the smallest of the recognized breeds and the smallest geese raised domestically, at 5 ½ pounds for ganders and 4 ½ pounds for geese. Egyptian geese were considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians, and appeared in much of their artwork.

Although not recognized for exhibition, the Nene Goose is sometimes kept in captivity. Because of its status as a federally Endangered Species, special permits are required. It’s a small wild goose, related to Canada Geese, typically, weighing around five pounds, females slightly smaller than males. It’s Hawaii’s state bird, but nearly became extinct in the 20th century. Its attractive ‘striped’ plumage (actually, diagonal rows of white feathers with black skin showing through), buff-colored cheeks and black head are distinctive. It’s so friendly and tame that the public is cautioned against making pets of it in its native state. Being too friendly can expose it to dangers, such as becoming road kill.

Goose Eggs

Bakers prize goose eggs for baked goods. They can substitute for chicken eggs but not one-for-one. Weigh them and use the appropriate amount, or figure roughly one goose egg equals two chicken eggs. The white is thicker and won’t whip up as well as chicken egg whites do.

Goose eggs are popular for decorative crafts, called eggeury. They are offered as a separate product, in five sizes, by Schlitz Foods, the supplier for most commercial table-ready goose. Metzer Farms sells its duck and goose eggs, making use of infertile eggs, in ten sizes for goose eggs, seven for duck.

Ukrainian Pysanky is an intricate art of dying eggs with progressive colors in delicate geometric designs. The dyes are applied from the lightest to the darkest, with layers of bees’ wax protecting the lighter colors. They have many mythical and religious meanings. Adriana, a Ukrainian artist in California, relates on her site that the first Pysanky were decorated by the tears of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was taking eggs to Pontius Pilate as a ransom for her son. Climbing the stairs, she tripped, and the Pysanky scattered all over the world.

Eggs can be blown out through two holes, one in each end. Shake the egg and most of the contents will pour out. The rest can be blown out. Repair the hole with spackling or tissue paper and white glue.

“I save all my goose eggs,” said Mr. Konecny. He identifies them by hen and compares them from year to year, to determine how each hen is doing.

The bible for raising geese remains Dave Holderread’s The Book of Geese: A Complete Guide to Raising the Home Flock, of Holderread’sWaterfowl Farm and Preservation Center in Corvallis, Oregon. My book, How to Raise Poultry, includes color photos of goose breeds in the chapter on geese. John Metzer of Metzer Farms keeps a blog of duck and goose information.

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